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Thailand as the Rohingyas’ new destination

February 04, 2013

BANGKOK: On the surface, Thailand’s decision to allow hundreds of Rohingya refugees to remain inside the country temporarily for six months as illegal immigrants seemed a commendable move. However, upon deeper scrutiny it showed the government’s kneejerk manner of responding to the influx of “new boat people” from the Bay of Bengal and the overall recklessness among intra-government agencies.

Worse still was the view held by the secretary-general of the National Security Council, Lt-Gen Paradon Pattanathaboot, who continues to be in a state of denial, believing that the Rohingya are not victims of a region-wide human trafficking operation. The Thai authorities believe they are victims of human smugglers who dump them in Thailand before they go to Malaysia.

For the past few years, after the monsoon season ends, the Rohingya have taken to the sea inside small fishing trawlers arranged by smugglers. They have pay outrageous fees upfront to evade detection from camps and border guards. That is the easy part. The hard part is to survive the rough, often deadly, journey in high seas.

Most of the trawlers would sail along the coastal areas southward, trying to navigate hostile seas and avoid naval patrols from Bangladesh and Myanmar. If they are found, they would have to pay additional bribes. Before the current seafaring episode, the Rohingya used to be smuggled out through border areas in northern Myanmar through China, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Under the previous government, the Thai naval patrols would push back the Rohingya once they were spotted closed to Thai territorial waters.

The standard practice adopted by Thailand, as well as other countries, is to provide food, water and fuel so that they could continue the journey to their destinations. When the Abhisit government did exactly that after a few weeks in power in January 2009, it came under international condemnation for violating human rights. In those days, the unwelcome visitors were detained as illegal immigrants and then quickly repatriated through border towns on the Kingdom’s eastern flank, especially at Mae Sot.

However, most of them would return to Thailand shortly after, as they did not know where to go or desire to return home. That used to be the prima facie. Before the tragedy in Rakhine State last June, the inflow was small with a few hundred arrivals. Malaysia and Indonesia were their destinations.

In the second half of last year, the number went through the roof with more than 4,000 stranded Rohingya in Thailand. With the international community setting its eyes once again on their fate inside Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand, the Yingluck government was savvy enough to take the risk — sheltering them temporarily before a better solution is found. As illegal immigrants, they could stay up to six months.

Unfortunately, the government’s action could send a wrong signal in two ways.

For the international community, Thailand is willing to shelter them temporarily, which is a new policy shift. For the trafficker, Thailand has become a new destination. New waves of arrivals could be expected in the near future. Human traffickers have connections inside Thailand, Malaysia, and even in Myanmar and often coordinate their operations.

Of late, bus loads of Rohingya have been seen travelling from Songkhla across Sadao’s checkpoints to Malaysia. The Rohingya labourers are in big demand over there inside palm and rubber plantations as well as for construction work. Both countries are under the Tier 2 Watch List according to the 2012 Trafficking In Persons Report released by the US State Department.

However, this bad news is good news in southern Thailand, especially in Songkhla and Ranong. Fishing industry players including canned seafood factories have been suffering from a cheap labour shortage. They have been hiring the Rohingya for years at around 80 baht (US$2) per day against the new mandatory wage of 300 baht ($10) per day.

By arrangement with The Nation/ANN